Books for Christmas: 'Bewilderment'

Reviewed By Father Jim McDermott, SJ
Wednesday, November 30, 2022

This is the fifth year I’ve been recommending books for Christmas in these pages. And more than any prior year, I’m noticing an underlying theme. When I look back on the books that have really spoken to me this year, the ones I can’t stop recommending, they’re all stories about people contending with some experience of, as Richard Powers titled his most recent novel, bewilderment. 

That may not seem like the most natural idea for a stocking stuffer, but it does resonate with where the world is right now. And all three books also offer the kind of faith in the face of uncertainty that is so much at the heart of the Nativity story we celebrate this month. I hope you and yours enjoy them.  

Theo Byrne is an astrobiologist who spends his days trying to conceive of what life on other planets might look like. But more and more his main occupation is trying to help his 9-year-old son, Robin, who has been diagnosed with a variety of mental health issues, grieve the death of his mother, Alyssa. At the point that Theo seems out of options, a friend of Alyssa’s offers a treatment in which Robin will have the brainwaves of his mother transmitted into his mind. The treatment succeeds, but with unexpected results, not only for Robin and Theo, but also for the society in which they live, which seems to be falling apart.

Powers, whose previous book, “The Overstory,” won the Pulitzer Prize, is a gifted writer. The prose in “Bewilderment” shimmers with insight and emotion. “My boy was a pocket universe I could never hope to fathom,” Theo writes, realizing the same is true of everyone. Later, at a painful moment: “His shoulder blades stuck out through his polo shirt like amputated wings.”

And as in “The Overstory,” Powers invites readers to a greater sense of awareness of the world around us, to let its stillness and beauty nourish and heal us. “A butterfly more staggering than any stained-glass window landed on Robin’s downy forearm where he rested it on the boat,” Theo writes. “Robin held his breath, letting the visitor stumble, fly, and land again on his face. It walked across his closed eyes before flying away.”

More than anything, “Bewilderment” is a story of the love between a parent and child, and also a husband and wife. And what makes the short novel truly bewildering is the degree to which it captures the rawest emotions of those relationships. This is a book for anyone who has loved their child so much it hurt, or longed to know what their spouse was actually thinking.